NASA CubeSat Will Shine a Laser Light on the Moon’s Darkest Craters

This artist’s concept shows the briefcase-sized Lunar Flashlight spacecraft using its near-infrared lasers to shine light into shaded polar regions on the Moon to look for water ice. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

(Via NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory | JPL)

To support the next wave of human exploration, the Lunar Flashlight mission will look for potential ice hidden at the Moon’s South Pole.

As astronauts explore the Moon during the Artemis program, they may need to make use of the resources that already exist on the lunar surface. Take water, for instance: Because it’s a heavy and therefore expensive resource to launch from Earth, our future explorers might have to seek out ice to mine. Once excavated, it can be melted and purified for drinking and used for rocket fuel. But how much water is there on the Moon, and where might we find it?

This is where NASA’s Lunar Flashlight comes in. About the size of a briefcase, the small satellite – also known as a CubeSat – aims to detect naturally occurring surface ice believed to be at the bottom of craters on the Moon that have never seen sunlight.

“Although we have a pretty good idea there’s ice inside the coldest and darkest craters on the Moon, previous measurements have been a little bit ambiguous,” said Barbara Cohen, principal investigator of the mission at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Scientifically, that’s fine, but if we’re planning on sending astronauts there to dig up the ice and drink it, we have to be sure it exists.”

Over the course of two months, Lunar Flashlight will swoop low over the Moon’s South Pole to shine its lasers into permanently shadowed regions and probe for surface ice. Found near the North and South Poles, these dark craters are thought to be “cold traps” that accumulate molecules of different ices, including water ice. The molecules may have come from comet and asteroid material impacting the lunar surface and from solar wind interactions with the lunar soil.

The mission is detailed in a new paper published in the April 2020 issue of IEEE Aerospace and Electronic Systems Magazine.

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